October 31, 2020

Disney+ review: First ‘Star Wars’ live-action TV series ‘The Mandalorian’ doesn’t rule the galaxy

Can “Star Wars” conquer the world of TV?

For decades the sci-fi franchise has been one of the most reliable box office powerhouses, and now the galaxy far, far away has come to television via bounty-hunter tale “The Mandalorian” on Disney+ (first episode now streaming, ★★½ out of four). 

As a bombastic first entry into live-action TV, “Mandalorian” is a bit of a disappointment. Crafted around a protagonist designed to be obscure (he never removes his helmet, and even his voice is modulated into bland evenness), there’s little in the way of an emotional connection in the first episode (no others were made available for review; the second will be released Friday). Like prequel film “Rogue One,” “Mandalorian” captures the aesthetics of the “Star Wars” universe without understanding its heart. 

Set between the events of “Return of the Jedi” and “The Force Awakens,” “Mandalorian,” created by “The Lion King” director Jon Favreau, follows a lone bounty hunter, patterned on original trilogy character Boba Fett, who’s known only as “The Mandalorian” (Pedro Pascal), the name of his tribe. It depicts a gritty, lawless, murderous world where Pascal’s skilled warrior hunts bail jumpers and criminals without a flicker of feeling, encasing them in carbonite prisons like the one that held Han Solo (Harrison Ford) captive at the end of “The Empire Strikes Back.” (There are plenty of other classic “Star Wars” visual cues, from R2 droids to Stormtroopers to tiny puppet aliens on spits). 

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In its first episode, the Mandalorian is hired by a mysterious man (Werner Herzog, the most vivid performance) to track down an unidentified, highly-guarded target for a huge sum, but the mission becomes slightly more complicated than the Mandalorian realized. To say anything further about the plot would unleash the wrath of legions of fans fearful of spoilers. 

The series is more of an intimate space Western than the grand space opera style of the films, leaning into the dusty streets of the unnamed planets the Mandalorian stalks and images of him bursting through mechanical doors whether or not they want to open for him. The pilot, directed by “Star Wars” animation alum Dave Filoni, looks impressive enough, although some of the action sequences are hard to follow. Despite taking place in a universe millions of fans are acquainted with, “Mandalorian” doesn’t spend enough time explaining its own world. Attempts to establish a time and place are clunky. 

The episode doesn’t do much in the way of character work – the most developed among the few introduced is an amusing alien the Mandalorian captures in the episode’s opening, but he is quickly encased in carbonite and dispatched. In addition to Herzog, Carl Weathers appears briefly as a bounty hunter broker, and “Thor Ragnarok” director/actor Taika Waititi plays droid IG-11. Like Pascal, his performance is hampered by design, without a face or natural voice to ground him. Several series regulars, including Giancarlo Esposito, are not yet introduced.

Still, there is a lot of potential in the series. The episode is just 40 minutes, a delight in the streaming era when some drag on for an hour or more without much plot justification. There is plenty of intrigue when it comes to “Star Wars” lore, and a slight twist ending sets up a story that could involve bigger ideas from the film series. And there are a few bright moments, even behind a steel mask, where Pascal makes his equivocal bounty hunter feel more grounded. 

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